Denali National Park plans to expand fall and spring park access

A cyclist pedals through the Pretty Rocks area of the Denali Park Road on the approach to the Polychrome Overlook on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

The National Park Service is moving ahead with changes aimed at enhancing shoulder and winter season access to Denali National Park.

Formal planning for the changes began two years ago, although some of the changes — like plowing and opening the Park Road to the Mountain Vista rest stop at Mile 12 each February — have already been happening for several years.

Denali National Park recreational planner Jennifer Johnston says the plan also includes allowing traffic to Mile 30 in the fall when conditions permit.

“Traditionally, if we got a really severe weather event, say in late September, that would close the Park Road at headquarters at Mile 3 and it wouldn’t reopen again until the Spring. Under this new vision, if we had a really severe weather event in September, but then the weather cleared up and it was just beautiful and the road dried out all of its own accord, the road could then open again to the Teklanika Rest Area,” she said.

The plan also includes ski trail grooming near the park entrance, snowshoe and mushing access upgrades at Mountain Vista and expanded winter commercial guiding operations.

“Guided skiing and snowshoeing will be allowed in the wilderness area that surrounds the Park Road,” Johnston said. “Mushing is already allowed in that area and will continue to be allowed.”

Other changes will allow concession or transit and tour bus service to begin earlier in the spring, and for private vehicles to park along the road in May to facilitate access to hiking and backcountry trips.

Johnston said the park service also plans to open the Savage River and Teklanika campgrounds earlier in the spring and keep them open later in the fall. A recently issued decision on an environmental review said the changes will result in no significant impact of the park. Johnston emphasized that all the changes reflect the growing demand to visit Denali outside of the traditional summer season.

“We wanted to make sure that we could provide for those visitors and better manage that visitation,” said Johnston.

But some in the area are skeptical.

“We don’t think that the park needs to make easy or more accessible beyond a certain minimal approach.” said longtime Denali Citizens Council board member Nancy Bale. She says the park watchdog group is especially concerned about the increased private vehicle traffic. She points to its expansion this summer due to a pandemic-caused reduction in traditional bus transport options.

“[It’s] shown that people don’t really know how to behave around wildlife. They get out of their cars inappropriately. They’d leave their cars parked in the road,” she said.

Bale says the apparent management shift diverges from the 1970s approach when the Park Service first opted for buses to transport visitors along the Park Road to both provide safe access and protect wildlife and other park resources.

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